Margaret Robinson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Ithaca College. She teaches mathematics and mathematics education courses, as well as general teacher education courses. She is the co-author of “Grasping Mathematics: A Patterned Approach” and co-directed a series of workshops designed to familiarize teachers in New York State with the integrated mathematics curriculum. Professor Robinson is also the associate director of COMPASS, a large-scale program focused on implementation of Standards-based secondary mathematics curricula.
You teach students how to be teachers. Can you describe what you think pre-service math education should be like?
Mathematics education is changing, or we would like it to. In my methods class I try to model some of the new strategies that come from the 1989 NCTM standards, the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards. These standards set forth a vision of what mathematics education could be like or should be like. Although they don’t prescribe any certain teaching methods, they do talk about the importance of discourse in the classroom, making connections among math topics, as well as between mathematics and other disciplines. I try to model this approach by doing hands-on activities and investigations, by having my students design lesson plans that incorporate those kinds of things as well as other teaching strategies and by asking higher-level questions.
What do you mean by “higher level questions”?
The lowest level of question might be a question based on memory, or identification; higher levels of questioning would ask students to evaluate, justify, predict. For higher-level questions there may be more than one answer, maybe more divergent thinking. A lot of times I find teachers in the classroom are asking only the lower-level questions, the computation levels, “What is two plus two?”, rather than “why is this the way it is?”
How do your students take to this kind of approach?
It’s interesting. I ask my students when they first come into class how many of them have ever done mathematics in groups, for example. Many of them say they haven’t. So this kind of teaching is new to many of them and it takes awhile. I don’t immerse them in inquiry-based lessons, for example, right off the bat. We talk about, and we view videos of standards based classes. We talk about cooperative learning. We talk about other strategies that can be used, and then we practice. They will do an activity at maybe a middle school level, so they’ll get that experience. Then we’ll talk about how you draw things out from your students. We talk about different ways in which students understand or see a problem, and then how a teacher might help facilitate that.
What kinds of strategies have you seen be effective in pre-service training?
I do try to get them out into the field as soon as possible in a variety of ways. First of all, if I have them as they come in as freshmen, I try to get them to volunteer in our local schools, either as a tutor or just helping out in the classroom, or sometimes at our local community center. I also encourage them to tutor on campus, if they don’t have rides. So they tutor their peers in some of the lower level courses. Once they have been here a year and are a little more familiar with the professors here, I encourage them to agree to be either a grader or a teaching assistant for one of the departments. Some of them actually have summer jobs, where they’re camp counselors, working with all age groups of kids. One of our students worked for the Appalachia Service Project where she organized groups of volunteers to complete building projects and repairs on homes for families in very poor areas. Any kind of thing where interpersonal skills come into play is valuable – giving clear directions, that sort of thing can be helpful for new teachers.
Would you describe the COMPASS* project?
COMPASS stands for Curricular Options in Mathematics Programs for All Secondary Students. It is an implementation project that was funded by NSF. Its purpose is to inform and assist school districts and any other interested groups (including parents, school boards, state officials and so forth), about the five comprehensive multi-year standards-based curriculum programs that received funding from NSF after the NCTM standards were published. So that means we spend a lot of time out on the road, talking to people about high school mathematics education.
Do you find it difficult to get schools and districts to adopt a new curriculum?
Change can be difficult and slow. And it’s not just a matter of adopting a new curriculum—you have to bring about systemic change. To do that, it’s necessary to bring all stakeholders (teachers, students, parents, administrators, client teachers, guidance counselors, business people, community leaders, state officials, school board members, etc.) on board so that they are continually informed as to why and how the mathematics program is changing. And once a new program is being phased in, there should be a plan in place to monitor and evaluate progress. Significant change in a large school district takes years to come about.
Another thing we have learned in COMPASS is that very often change occurs because there’s an external motivator. That motivator can be a state assessment, for example in New York State every student needs to take this in order to graduate high school. The states of Washington and California also – a lot of them have come up with some kind of exit exam. That has motivated people to at least start looking around for alternative programs. Fortunately, because a lot of these assessments have been somewhat aligned with the standards, its got people looking around for standards-based curriculum. A motivator might also be a grant of some sort – there have been implementation grants, local systemic change grants from NSF, urban system initiative grants.
But whatever the motivator, one other thing is necessary: a leader in the district who has the idea that these programs make sense, who believes in the philosophy of the curriculum developers, and believes in the standards-based approach. It’s the person who says “This is where I want to go, I’m going to make it happen.”